Interview with Bonnie Urciuoli (Hamilton College)

Bonnie Urciuoli teaches anthropology at Hamilton College.

Eli Thorkelson: I’ve known you and your work for quite a while, Bonnie, and we went to the same graduate program at Chicago (albeit 30 years apart), but I only just found out as part of this interview that your early work was on Puerto Rican speech communities, and then you gradually became more interested in American constructs of multiculturalism, race and class, right? And then a few years after you got tenure, you started working on higher education diversity discourse, focusing on your own institution, Hamilton College. How did that shift come about? Was there some moment when you decided that you had to write about where you worked?

Bonnie Urciuoli: I got to Hamilton in 1988, and within a year or two I noticed students, generally recruited through HEOP (Higher Education Opportunity Program), who came from the neighborhoods where I had done fieldwork or neighborhoods much like them, and who could easily have been younger members of the families I worked with on the Lower East Side (1978-79) or in the Bronx (1988). HEOP plays a key role. It was established and funded by the state to provide higher education assistance to academically and economically disadvantaged students who show academic promise. The decision to admit a student through HEOP takes place in the admissions process, and students are offered financial packages combining grants, loans, and work-study, some funding from the state, some from the college. Incoming cohorts are 30-40 per year. All participants attend a five-week summer program before their first year. This is a sort of college prep boot camp with classes in various subjects taught by college faculty. (The boot camp part is because of how the residential aspect of the program is run, not so much the academics.) HEOP cohorts include white students, often children of college plant or clerical employees, or sports (usually football, sometimes basketball) recruits but the white HEOP kids tend to disappear into the mass and HEOP is generally identified with Latino, Black, and Asian students. Those kids tend to become the core of the student ‘cultural’ organizations (LaVanguardia, Black Student Union, Asian Cultural Society). From 1972 through 2001 HEOP was the main source of ‘diversity’ for the college; in 2001 the college started partnering with the Posse Foundation to develop another ‘diversity’ source. But I am getting way ahead of my story. Also if you’re interested, I have a ms under review on this very topic. Not to mention a book chapter.

OK, so in summer of 1993, I was working in my office and a couple of my students who were on campus working with the incoming HEOP group came by and said that one of the English professors teaching in the summer program had told some of his bilingual students that the reason they had trouble writing in English was because of interference from their Spanish. I am giving a very low-key account. The reality was more like “Bonnie, you would not believe what Professor X is telling these kids!” “Wait, what???” “Yeah, and we thought you could tell him to stop doing that.” So then when the blood cleared from before my eyes and I got the HEOP director on the phone, she said “well he’s faculty and I can’t do anything about it.” So I went to this friend of mine who was teaching a communication course and asked if she knew about it and she said yes and she was going to tell me and what were we going to do about it and I said how about I come to her class since the kids who got told about their ‘Spanish interference’ were in the class and I could talk about my research and the book I was writing and we could see where it went from there. So we did that and as it happened, my friend Millie (who was one of my key informants and is in Exposing Prejudice) was visiting so she came too and we had quite a discussion. So then three of the kids who’d gotten the ‘interference’ lecture came up to Millie and me at the end of class (I had been pretending I had no idea this had happened) and told us about it and I said well, that’s not how interference actually works. So, long story short, I wound up with these kids as my advisees and students. Then there was my, um, follow-up phone conversation with the professor in question and the HEOP director who I think agreed with him on the ‘interference’ thing, so I had a couple of fairly crisp conversations with them as they both thought the students in question shouldn’t be taking any Spanish and I said well I’m their advisor and if they want to take a course on “Spanish for native speakers” they’re taking it.

Anyway that’s what kick-started my next project. The students in question were young women from New York, and as I recall, they were Puerto Rican, Honduran, Cuban, and Ecuadoran. I told them I wanted to start a new project on what it was like to go from being Puerto Rican etc from Manhattan, the Bronx, etc to being “Latina” at Hamilton and were they interested in working with me and they were and we started interviewing. Also, as I got along with my draft of Exposing Prejudice, I floated pieces to them and got reassuring comments of recognition like “that sounds like my neighborhood” or “that sounds like my mother.” As they became core members of LaVanguardia, the Latino student society, it became an important site for sociality for them, and they also provided much of the Latino programming for the school.

So by now this is the mid-1990s when Hamilton and every other college in its comparison group was concerned with its demographic profile, especially in the face of the hardening social facticity of that damn U.S. News and World Report ranking system, begun in 1983 as a gambit to sell magazines. My anthro colleague Henry Rutz, who had been there since the 1970s and knew the place and its players inside out, said that its concern with its status as a nationally ranked institution really sprouted by the early 1990s, partly reflecting board members’ (very connected to Wall Street) success in what he called the “go-go 80s” and their willingness to donate $$ to overhauling the school’s image, especially since it had, for the first time since 1983, dropped off the top 25 list. So there were lots of mid-90s initiatives: closing and buying the old frat houses (lots of legal action there – a very expensive undertaking), lots of work with consulting firms to do student surveys, and lots of work with college branding consultants, not that I ever heard the word ‘brand’ (so crass!) Lots of strategic planning, and LOTS of obsession with increasing diversity numbers which is how we got hooked up with Posse ca. 2001.

So my project started small with a handful of student interviews in 1995, the original aim being to examine the contrast between what it meant to come from a specific background (Puerto Rican growing up in the Bronx, Dominican in Washington Heights, Cuban in Miami) and to become, over four years at the college, Latino/a – how did they experience, live and perform that transition. But once it was clear how institutionally bound that question was, the project grew. The establishment of college multicultural/diverse identities was embedded in academic and institutional structures, most immediately those of student life. So by 1998 I had expanded my range of interviews to include faculty members and administrators. By the early 2010s, when I finished (or just stopped) interviewing, I had over a hundred interviews, including 60-plus or so with students, 25 with faculty and 15 with administrators. I also became obsessed with the neoliberalized thinking and language that framed every institutional decision and move. And with the branding. Eventually the project turned into the study of how ‘diversity’ is institutionally produced at Hamilton in ways that are strikingly contrastive depending on whether you look at how the institution presents itself to the outside or operates on the inside, and for the latter whether it’s classroom or student life. And socially marked students get to do the heavy lifting in the branding department.

I guess the main reason I focused on Hamilton was that it was there, right in front of me, and so small that it was really easy to study, plus I had gotten to know it so well. Plus, and this is kind of crazy, no one seemed to care what I was doing. IRB kept renewing me and I gave copies of what I wrote to the president (who came in in 2003) and dean of faculty (who came in in 2005) and they didn’t seem to have a problem with what I was writing. I work it into my classes all the time, kids find it pretty interesting. Academically it really does grow out of my earlier project in that it takes up how racialization operates in institutions that I really think see themselves as socially progressive but that have also put themselves in a position where they all use ‘diversity’ to promote themselves, so they need some kind of neoliberalized racial markedness to do that. Is that nuts or what?

Eli: The contradiction between wanting to be a progressive institution and wanting to participate in racialized marketing discourse seems pretty striking (as I’ve learned from reading your work for a while too!). Do you think you could elaborate a little on why this may not feel like a contradiction to the campus actors who are producing diversity discourse? Does it seem like doxa to them (just seems natural) or are they more consciously fatalistic (like “we have no choice about our diversity branding given the higher ed landscape today”)? And can you say a little bit about what it might take to really change the structures of racialized identity on campus? Do you see these identity discourses varying a lot across institutions?

Bonnie: I think to answer this question one needs to think about how an institution is put together. Colleges and universities may be academic institutions but the people tasked with diversity jobs of various kinds aren’t all academics. There are faculty and then there are professional administrators who do the work of admissions, or of student life administration, or of institutional advancement. Faculty are pretty isolated from the rest, plus when faculty move into administration – generally in the Dean of Faculty office, at least where I work – the requirements of their new job tends to crowd out whatever notions of diversity they might have started with.

Here I take pages from Andrew Abbott’s (1988) work on professional expertise versus his (2001) notion of the ‘chaos of (academic) disciplines.’ Re the latter, faculty acting as department members are at a disadvantage: they (we, I should say, I’m in the same boat) tend to see diversity in terms of their own discipline and there is considerable variation across departments as to what diversity is, so none of us are speaking from a unified place. Re the former, one does not have to (nor in fact can one) define what diversity is; instead on is handed the job of solving problems, and one does that depends on one’s institutional role. When faculty act as administrators, they don’t have to, nor can they, define diversity, because it has already been defined in terms of one’s task. If you’re the chief diversity officer, you are supposed to increase the number of diversity hires and do something about the climate those hires will face. But the former tends to take precedence because its success can be measured in numbers, unlike the latter. When those problem-solving positions are occupied by non-faculty, it’s even simpler, because the people in those positions don’t have to put up with interfering academic notions of diversity. If they are in admissions, their job is to increase numbers of students in specific demographic categories. If they are in institutional advancement, their job is to create images of students in those demographic categories that enhance the institution’s reputation and attract support from donors. So I guess you could say that a sense of doxa develops though less so for many faculty, particularly African American faculty, as well as African American student life administrators, particularly those connected with Posse and Opportunity Programs. Having said that, I know several faculty who went pretty doxic (can I say that?) as administrators or as Posse mentors.

But the major decisions about how the institution defines and administers its diversity policies are way out of the hands of all us bit players: they come from the trustees, the president, the director of admissions, and the director of the office of institutional advancement. And they do not see any racializing contradictions because they all see the institution first and foremost. And I doubt that anyone connected to diversity branding at levels of any authority felt any fatalism, conscious or otherwise.

As to what might change all this? Short of losing the whole structure of commodification and branding, I cannot imagine. As to how these identity discourses vary across institutions, I think there is a correlation with how central undergraduate liberal arts education is to the institution, since I get the impression that a lot of what drives this packaging of diversity is making it part of that kind of education. Here’s this ‘useless’ central element of U.S. education – liberal arts – that can be successfully packaged neoliberally as a way to package the general worth of the worker, and some vague notion of diversity becomes part of that packaging. So maybe diversity in US higher education was really never about leveling the playing field for students who are racially marked.

Eli: As you talk about actors finding their way through diversity discourses that they didn’t produce, I think we’re getting to the heart of your long series of papers on higher education diversity and marketing discourse. Your work has brought together a really detailed project of semiotic and textual analysis with a broad survey of liberal arts branding and self-presentation. I gather (correct me if I’m wrong) that you started out from the specific questions about racialization/diversity/multiculturalism that you mentioned earlier, and then you followed a number of discourse chains and associations into a number of related research projects, like “skills” discourse or general idealization projects (often as much photographic as textual) about the “good student.” Your early papers seem more focused on the diversity problematic, like in “Producing multiculturalism in higher education: Who’s producing what for whom?” (1999) and “Excellence, leadership, skills, diversity: marketing liberal arts education” (2003), and your later work seems to develop these related topics, as in “Skills and selves in the new workplace” (2008), “Entextualizing diversity: Semiotic incoherence in institutional discourse” (2010) and recently “The semiotic production of the good student: A Peircean Look at the Commodification of Higher Education” (2014). In any event, throughout the work, you emphasize how commonplace institutional signifiers like “diversity” or “skills” have radically unstable denotations that vary in different institutional arenas, and you emphasize that the incoherence of their reference is no obstacle to their discursive flourishing, or perhaps even is a condition of their success. In other words, you’ve brought linguistic anthropology to bear on a topic that doesn’t always get a lot of sustained linguistic analysis. 

Having said all that for the benefit of readers who may not be familiar with your work, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about your own practices of research and analysis. Once you decided to embark on this project, how did you go about it on a day-to-day (or year-to-year) basis? Do you divide it up into sub-topics, collaborate with your students, anything like that?

Bonnie: In truth, my “practices of research and analysis” have not been particularly organized. Often I was drawn to particular points of research because of what seemed especially fetishized in the college environment. I may have made the connection between race issues and skills talk when I noticed the opportunity program director (who was African American) stressing the importance of ‘communication skills’ and leadership to students of color. I think I started noticing references to ‘skills’ in the mid 1990s (and first wrote about it in spring 1998) in relation to talk about ‘communication’ particularly by our C&D (marketing) people. And it seemed pretty clear much of this emphasis was being driven by trustees. It started being really evident in college publications by around 1995-97, so I gathered up college publicity literature, print and website. A key element here was that the college used to have a public speaking requirement, the classes for which were supplied by what used to be the Speech Department. That became a department of 2 FTE, one of whom did his best to turn it into an academic department, first Speech Communication and then Rhetoric and Communication. But public speaking remained practically mythologized, especially by trustees and alums, so as skills language started finding its way into higher education advertising, our C&D immediately connected it to public speaking. So I talked to anyone I knew at the school who knew about this history. In particular, my anthropology colleague Henry Rutz, was a wonderful mentor as I was getting started, given his knowledge of our institutional history, his own expertise in the anthropology of education, and his help in clarifying Marxian principles. Henry, who retired in 2006, was a huge part of my coming to understand the institutional embedding of the production of multiculturalism and diversity. Besides that, I just watched what went on around me. For example, in the late 1990s-early 2000s, we had a dean who became highly focused on the importance of communication, hiring consultants to ‘develop’ faculty implementation of ‘communication skills’ in classes. He did the same with assessment. So I didn’t even have to go looking for topics, they surrounded me.

My main concern was to keep looking for how they linked to and informed each other. Basically, I followed threads from one research question to the next. Who I interviewed depended on what principles I was trying to illustrate – how the institution operated, what coursework addressed, the nature of student lives. When I started the project I did a couple of focus groups with students to get a sense of what threads I wanted to pursue. I also frequently incorporated what I was working on into my courses which generated a lot of interesting feedback and sometimes got students in those courses taking up some of the threads and expanding them in course papers and senior projects, some of which I cited in my own work, though I’ve never done any formal collaboration with students. But we sure talked a lot.

Really, there has never been a master plan, nor did I ever consciously sub-divide it ahead of time. It’s been a combination of watching what goes on around me, following threads, and talking to students and colleagues. Since I started the project, there have always been students who have gotten interested in what I’m doing — especially anthropology majors, we have a nice semiotic anthropology program at Hamilton. And I’ve been very lucky in the colleague department: besides Henry, I’ve had Susan Mason in Communication and Education and Chaise LaDousa in Anthropology at Hamilton, plus Richard Handler in Anthropology at Virginia. So I guess the answer to your question is, I just followed the threads that surrounded me (especially the ones that called out to me, “can you f*#!ing believe this??”) But I always tried to do it in a way that connected back to basic principles of Marx-inflected social anthropology anchoring a Silversteinian pragmatic approach.

Now that I think of it, that thing about points of investigation in effect jumping out at me and yelling “get a load of this!” might be peculiar to analyzing one’s own academic institution. I think Richard experiences it at Virginia, I know Chaise does at Hamilton, and I think Gaye Tuchman did at U Conn (Wannabe U). Chaise and I talk about this all the time, why have we (and Henry) noticed it, and why do so few other faculty at Hamilton seem to? We are constantly astonished at how much our colleagues take at face value. But all that is probably going beyond the question you asked.

Eli: I don’t think this is off topic in the least — in fact, I think that the question of “what colleagues notice or take for granted” is central to my earlier question about how much higher ed actors take neoliberal categories for granted, and also to the question of how we are able, or unable, to craft meaningful projects of critical research in the academy. I usually see ethnographic work on higher education as a rather diffuse, but quite long-term discussion among really far-flung scholars from widely dispersed institutions. But here, you’re reminding me that it also makes a big difference to have support from one’s immediate colleagues. How did it happen that Hamilton has two anthropologists working on the language of higher education (you and Chaise LaDousa)? That’s remarkable! 

Bonnie: Well here’s what happened. My anthropology colleague Henry Rutz decided to retire in spring 2006. Henry’s training was in economic and political anthropology and his earlier work on nationalism and time. In the 1990s he moved into anthropology of education, working in Turkey with a colleague. While he didn’t consider himself a specialist in discourse or semiotics, he certainly understood them, especially in relation to neoliberalism and class. My project really started in long conversations with him – he really mentored me on commodification and neoliberalism, and we had endless discussions about the political economy of higher education, of which he had a profound understanding. That’s really how my project got started. I just can’t say enough about how much he helped me.

Anyway, once Henry decided he was retiring and we got authorization to search, the three continuing members of the department decided we’d like to have someone with Henry’s strengths, and I also said I’d really like someone who thought semiotically. And we got something like 160 responses and one of them was Chaise. He actually hadn’t yet developed the angle on education in the U.S. But I had met him and I knew his work on India, and he was a terrific candidate. So he started in fall 2006 which was about when he started publishing his work on student life. And I think in a lot of ways we carried on the conversations that I had earlier had with Henry.

So the answer to your question is, serendipity. Once Chaise got here, we built on common interests and came to work together in ways that I have found wonderfully productive. Over the last decade we have worked with a lot of students together and that too has been wonderfully productive. So there’s been this intellectual space in our department for a long time. Chaise inspires students, he sees and treats them as colleagues.

Eli: The question of like-minded colleagues also gets me to the last big question I wanted to ask you: What’s your take on the field of ethnographic work on higher ed more broadly? It seems to me that academia has slowly become legitimate as a site for anthropological research since the late 1990s, and people like you, Don Brenneis and Sue Wright have done a lot to call attention to the work of language and discourse in academic institutions. Where do you see this research going in the future?

Bonnie: I honestly don’t know. I’m kind of surprised at how long it seems to have taken U.S. anthropologists to tune into structural analyses of higher education compared to say British or European anthropologists. At AAA sometime in the 2000s, I think when he was still president, Don Brenneis organized an AAA session or round table on audit culture. I can’t remember details nor find them on the website. It was a big name session including Sue Wright and Cris Shore, and in a big room, and I was really surprised how few people came. (Don introduced me to Sue and Cris which was very nice of him and very lucky for me.) My sense is that in the US, the hot work in the semiotic anthropology of higher ed is coming out now, with pretty recent Ph.D.s — people like you (no pressure). Maybe it has to do with something like a shift from people thinking of linguistic anthropology as sharply bounded and somehow marginal (even into the 1990s, many departments seemed to treat ling anth as a specialty that only needed one person) to enough people thinking in terms of good anthropology as informed by an understanding of discourse. Not that enough people are there as far as I’m concerned but it’s better. (Pause here for huge shout-out to Michael Silverstein for training so many anthropologists who aren’t necessarily linguistic to think semiotically.) Also, a lot of people doing anthropology of higher ed aren’t in big influential anthropology departments so aren’t training lots of grad students.   And I think the linguistic anthropology work in higher education tends not to be recognized all that much as linguistic anthropology.

So to summarize, some of it is that the study of discourse itself has for a long time, and maybe still, has seemed sort of a specialty in anthropology, some of it is that higher ed hasn’t quite penetrated generally as an ethnographic focus, some of it is that the idea that really incisive political economy analyses of institutional structures really benefit from being semiotically informed has also not quite penetrated – do I have too many dependent clauses in there? – anyway I’d guess all those dynamics play a role. And then too, like I said, the people who are doing this stuff, where are we teaching? That plays a role too. But given that stuff is getting published and emerging scholars are reading it and doing it, maybe there’s a real shift going on.

Oh, and I have one last thought. If you think about where most of the work on academia is that’s informed by political economy analytic thinking (sorry, another awful clause), it emerged in places with stronger Marxist/Marxian social thinking traditions and also where the effects of neoliberally informed thinking come in through policy – hence all that audit culture work outside the U.S. But in the U.S., neoliberal effects come in as much if not more through marketing and branding processes. Sue Wright and I had an interesting talk about it – I had edited a special issue of Learning and Teaching, the higher education journal than she and Penny Wright edit for Berghahn and Chaise LaDousa and Richard Handler had written pieces for it that pretty directly identified Hamilton and Virginia. Sue was worried that they’d get institutional blowback as she had once gotten it (pretty nastily too) from her university’s chancellor. I said so long as what they wrote didn’t affect the brand no one in our marketing department or Virginia’s would even notice what we published. As far as they’re concerned, faculty research is just content provision for the website. (When Chaise published his House Signs book, he was a little concerned how Miami U. would react – well how they reacted was, they put it on their website. They didn’t care about the semiotic analysis, they just figured it was useful publicity. Even better story, when Gaye Tuchman published Wannabe U., if I remember the story correctly, U. Conn. threw her a book party.)

Eli: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, Bonnie. Your image of research as purely “content provision for the website” is a bit glum, but, you know, it’s better to have our work on the website than not to have it on the website — and so much the better if there’s a book party as well! And on a more serious note, your distinction between “policy neoliberalism” (like in Europe) and “branding-marketing neoliberalism” (more in the U.S.) is quite important. (Though one of the things that I saw in my work in France was that, while neoliberalism did arrive as national policy, it rapidly spawned a big marketing apparatus as well.) As this interview series goes on, we’ll have to come back to this point!

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Bonnie Urciuoli (Hamilton College)”

  1. Thank you very much for this interview Eli and Bonnie. So much of what you say and write about resonates with what is happening in South Asia, especially Sri Lanka where I am, right now.

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